Making Friends: Creating a Character You’ll Love to Play No Matter How Often He Hits

Advice Advice Character Creation Player

There are two ways to play any game, and that includes a role-playing game: You can play to win, or you can play to have fun.  Unless you’re getting paid, you should be playing to have fun.  If you’re playing any role-playing game, especially D&D, there’s no such thing as “winning”- unless you count not dying as a victory.  With that in mind, when you come to the gaming table you want it to be with players whose company you’ll enjoy for hours on end.

Perhaps just as important, you want to bring a character to the table whose company you enjoy as well.  Your character should be someone you know, someone you feel comfortable with, someone you want to come back to visit with time after time.  Sure, you want to make good use of the rules and mechanics so that your PC can stay alive and his story can be told.  But a character that’s only the sum of his rules-based parts could cease to be fun as soon as a bad dice roll hits the table.  So here are a few ideas that might help you make a character you’ll love to play- and look forward to meeting up with when adventure calls.

TELL ME WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?

Mechanics and rules tell the group what a character is.  Only the player can tell his group who his character is.  So take some time to find out before the first session of your campaign.  What is the character’s identity?  Why is he undertaking this adventure?  What was he doing before the campaign began?  What does he value more than anything?  What makes him too afraid to think?  Think about his home life.  Think about his best friend.  Think about his first love.  Inevitably he’ll have to kill, or at least hurt, another intelligent being.  How does that make him feel?  None of these bits will help you roll a critical hit, or make a successful Acrobatics check to leap a gaping chasm.  But it adds something the dice cannot: character.

Think of it this way:  Remember those classic Star Trek episodes, and that crucial moment when the away team must beam to the surface of some foreboding planet to save the day?  Up onto the transporter platform leaps Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy, Mr. Spock, and Ensign Davis.  We’ve never met Ensign Davis before, unlike the familiar officers flanking him.  He has no role before this episode, and I guarantee he won’t at the end of this episode.  Why is he the red-shirted lamb in this group?  Unfortunately, Ensign Davis has no identity and therefore no real importance.  We have no investment in him.  He’s an expendable prop used to tell the other characters’ stories.

While it adds nothing to your character’s Armor Class and it’s fairly worthless where spell resistance is concerned, a strong identity can be a powerful ally for a player’s character.  Other party members will be more likely to take risks on his behalf.  The DM will be less likely to quash his fragile two-dimensional life in the heat of battle.  If you invest in the character’s identity, there’s a very strong chance that the other players (and their characters) will as well.  Over time, each session in your campaign will begin to feel like old friends teaming up to take on the world instead of some guys rolling dice and manipulating numbers to defeat other dice rolls and sets of numbers with scary-sounding names and flavor text.

I can think of no better example than the following:  Months of mutual struggle, sacrifice, and searching had led our party to the hidden lair of a powerful ogre mage.  We attempted a stealthy entrance, but when our position was compromised all hell broke loose.  Forced to face down the monster in combat, Captain Jerome de la Croix (my paladin) rushed ahead of his comrades to smite the enemy and buy the party a round or two to either plan or retreat.

The ogre was far more powerful than Jerome had imagined however, and with one fell swoop of a falchion the ogre mage decapitated the young paladin and ended his holy quest.  But instead of running for his own life, Jerome’s friend Wil Delving (the local Rogue) rushed to the young paladin’s body to save it from whatever profane use the mage would find for it.  Seconds later, Wil Delving shared his friend’s bloody fate.  Only then did the rest of the horrified party beat a swift path back the way they came.

Mechanically, did I think my paladin could take that mage?  Maybe.  But I didn’t do any math before charging Jerome into that fray- he just tried to stop a monster from hurting his friends.  What’s more, Wil Delving (and his player alter ego Chase) did know that the mechanics of the combat were not in his favor, so the winning move was to haul ass the other way, and leave Jerome’s zealous body to its own grisly fate.

What made Wil step in, and risk his own head to try to preserve another character’s dignity even after that character’s life was ended?  I’d like to think it was the fact that all of our party members had hopes and dreams and families and identities that made them matter to the other characters.  Yeah, we gave up a couple years’ worth of experience points and magic items and feats and equipment by choosing to role-play the encounter the way we did.  But you have to admit, we gained a helluva good story. And it’s stories like that one that are damn near legends whenever we get together to play today.

HI, MY NAME IS

A solid character identity is only as good as the name you give it.  To that end, I sometimes spend the largest part of my character creation process picking just the right name for my new hero.  It may be a name that goes down in history (or infamy), so it’s worth giving it some close attention.

Much of a name’s origin is tied up in the campaign setting you’ll be adventuring in; exotic names like Solassar Dwinarnith are great if you’re playing a high fantasy game, but my group frequently plays in a setting that has a grittier, more historic flavor to it.  Consequently, our characters tend to have names that one might encounter in real life.  Or at least in historical records.  So here are a few quick and dirty tips for finding the right moniker to capture your hero’s true identity.

  • First impressions are important, so pick a name that paints the right picture when you hear it.
  • Try to avoid anything too goofy.  If other players don’t take your name too seriously they may not take your character too seriously either.
  • Don’t be afraid to use “normal” names for your characters.  Sometimes it’s easier to relate to (and remember) a name that is familiar to you.
  • Read up on your history and mythology.  Steal vigorously.
  • Three words:  Baby name websites.
  • No honorifics after your name, like “the Butcher” or “the Brave” or “the Terrible”.  Anyone capable of pulling this off is long since dead.
  • For ethnic or exotic sounding names, try entering the intended meaning of your character’s name into Google Translator.  You can convert a boring English word (uncle) into a cool character name (Strijko).
  • You can find several internet sites with character name generators, for all manner of systems and settings.  You know, if you want to take the easy way out.  Or if you’re in a hurry.

IDEAL IS NOT IDEAL

While a host of role models exist for any genre of player character, most players want their characters to be special, memorable, and uniquely theirs.  When creating a character, nothing helps to make that character unique like their quirks, foibles, and flat-out flaws.  Several RPG rules sets, both past and present, have even created mechanical benefits for players that choose a certain flaw for their character.

While these certainly deserve a player’s attention, it isn’t hard to think of those little idiosyncrasies that make people interesting and unique in real life, and then to apply them to the character one is bringing to life.  They intentionally serve no “in-game” purpose that will aid dice rolls or skill checks, but their benefit to role-playing can mean the difference between a good game and a great one.

One of the accidental joys of these nuggets of personality is that they can provide your DM with opportunities that relate directly to the party: personal missions or plot ideas, special rewards and treasure, helpful and sympathetic NPCs, or even ability or skill bonuses as a result of simply role-playing your character to the fullest.

For example, one of my most recent characters has persistent dreams that warn him of future peril.  He has no in-game mechanic that grants this ability, and nothing on his character sheet quantifies his gift for divination.  Still, this character is driven almost solely by his visions of the future and the meaning behind his dreams.  This is arguably a character flaw, in that it limits his perception of events and people around him.  However, I am lucky to have a DM who rewards my character (and arguably our party) by using some of these dreams to guide our campaign. Of course, following these visions has also led to the exile of our party from their homes and families, so not all is wine and roses, but without this weird quirk thrown in for texture and depth, the story would never have had the opportunity to grow in that direction.

The following list is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to those things that make characters (and players) uniquely themselves.  Don’t stop here though, let your imagination go wild!

  • Pick Your Phobia: xenophobia, agoraphobia, or any other irrational fear described on www.phobialist.com.
  • Squeamish Stomach: getting sick at the sight of blood, insects, dead bodies, or other “gross” things
  • Fanatical Following: an irresistible drive to blindly obey one’s dreams, friends, teacher, church, etc.
  • Mental Malady: diagnosable psychological conditions like the ones discussed at www.healthyplace.com
  • Curious Compulsion: an unexplained but pressing need, like only being able to sleep when facing north, inadvertently repeating another’s words, constantly cleaning one’s weapon, inventorying one’s equipment, etc.
  • Silly Superstition: unfailing belief in “lucky” practices, such as which hand one draws their weapon with, which day certain events transpire on, only entering a building through the main door, or wearing a certain pair of socks.

HERE’S THE STORY OF A MAN NAMED BRADY

Some of my favorite pages in core rule books are the ones that have nothing at all to do with rules.  Some of those short stories and flavor texts have inspired whole campaigns in my head, some of which have actually been given life by my gaming group.  When I’m reading those stories, I’m not trying to decipher which class, level, or alignment the character is; I’m simply enjoying the tale they tell.  Ultimately, that’s my approach to role-playing in general:  I don’t care what I play as long as I really enjoy who I play.  All the mechanics are secondary to the story and the characters telling it because, after all, this is a role-playing game.

Once you’ve used some of the above suggestions to find the identity of your new character, try this:  Write a one-page story from your character’s point of view.  It doesn’t have to be anything epic or legendary, just a way to get into his head and hear his side of the story.  When you’re done with it, show it to your DM, or your whole group.  Let them meet your character before he makes it to the table.  You’ll most likely find that other players will follow suit, and build from the events you’ve described.

In fact, a great deal of our group’s role-playing takes place in story form before we roll any dice at all.  We’ve even established our own Wiki to post them for each other, as well as to coordinate schedules and record the events of current gaming sessions.  Frequently these story-telling sessions will find some place in our campaigns, and the characters or events that evolve from them almost always spawn new game ideas.

The nice thing about this type of role-playing is that it’s entirely free of any consequences or catastrophes.  Your mind is free to create whatever past or present you’d like for your character, and if something doesn’t feel right you can just hit “Delete.”  It also gives players a rich source of original character ideas to draw from, in the event some member of your party is stumped about where to start creating their own, or (dice forbid) your current character gets beheaded by an ogre mage in his cavernous lair.  (Rest in peace, Jerome.)

READY TO ROLL

So now all you need are the numbers on your character sheet.  I suppose it goes without saying that all of the above is optional.  If all you desire is the adrenaline-fueled thrill of “hack and slash” combat, all you need are the right dice.  Maybe my affinity for creating a character’s identity as well as his stats comes from my gaming history of never having the right dice.  (Sadly this has also been true as a DM.)  But you owe yourself at least one attempt and making a “character”, not just a “character sheet.”  If you don’t like him when you’re done, just be sure to let him down easy; I’m sure he’ll understand.

Coming Soon: LET’S GET THIS PARTY STARTED: Non-Mechanical Character Creation Ideas That Work

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